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The Teacher's Theory

Han, Yu 1 (768 A.D.-824 A.D.)

    In ancient times, every scholar had to have teachers. A teacher is the one who presents principles, teaches texts 2, and solves problems. We are not born with knowledge. Who does not have questions? If one has questions and does not ask a teacher, then he will be puzzled forever.

    If a person is older than I am, of course, he learned the principles earlier than I did, so I would like to be his student. Even if someone is younger than I am, but he learned the principles earlier than I did, I would like to be his student also. I am studying principles, why should I care about whether my teacher was born before me? Therefore, no matter whether high class or low class, no matter whether old or young, whoever understands principles is a teacher.

    Alas! The true principle of learning has not passed down through generations for a long time. Consequently, it is difficult for people to solve their problems. The great scholars in olden times far surpassed average people, but they still loved to learn from a teacher. People today are far inferior to great scholars and they still consider it a disgrace to learn from others. Therefore, the smart are getting smarter and the foolish are getting more foolish. Is this the reason why a sage gains in wisdom while a fool remains a fool?

    I find it strange that one chooses a teacher for his beloved children, but he himself would feel ashamed to consult with a teacher. The children's teacher only explains textbooks and shows how to write phrases and sentences. The teacher neither presents principles nor solves problems. In other words, people only employ a teacher for writing sentences. However, when they have pressing questions, they will not consult with a teacher. Thus they only pay attention to trivial things and leave out important things. I do not think that they have made a wise choice.

    Wizards, physicians, musicians and various kinds of craftsmen do not feel ashamed to consult with each other. In our high society, if one person calls another person a teacher or a student, then people will gather to ridicule them and laugh at them. When asked why they laugh, they explain, "The two are about the same age. One will not know better than the other." One considers it shame if he consults with a person in a lower position. One who asks a person in a high position to be his teacher is considered to be engaging in flattery. We can see that the principle of learning is no longer honored. Our high society usually regards wizards, physicians, musicians and various kinds of craftsmen as low class. However, our elites’ approach to study is less wise than that of the low class. How absurd it is!

    A great scholar does not have a specific teacher. Confucius studied with Tan-zi 3, Chang-hong 4, Shi-xiang 5, and Lao-dan 6. Each was less talented than Confucius. Confucius said, "If three of us are walking together, at least one of the other two is good enough to be my teacher 7." Therefore, it is unnecessary that a teacher be better than his student in all aspects. The only difference between the two is that one has studied a topic longer than the other or that one knows more about a specialty than the other.

    Pan Li 8, nineteen years old, loves classical essays. He masters all the bibles of the six arts and their commentaries 9. Regardless of the trends he studies with me. I praise his practice of the old tradition and have written "The Teacher's Theory" as my gift to him.

1 Tui-zi was Yu Han's other first name. He was a native of Nan-yang City (present day Meng City of Henan Province). His ancestors used to live in Chang-li City, so he called himself "Yu Han from Chang-li City" When he was three, his parents died. His brother's wife raised him. He studied hard during his early years and mastered the six bibles and various schools of philosophy. In 792 A.D., he passed the Advanced Exam. At the peak of his career, he was the Deputy Minister of Civil Service. He was given the posthumous name "Wen" (literature) by the emperor. When he was the Deputy Minister of Judicial Department, Emperor De sent an envoy to India to acquire Buddha's bones. Yu Han wrote the emperor a letter to admonish him for his edict. Emperor De was furious and wanted to sentence Han to death. Due to Du Pei and others' rescue effort, Han's sentence was reduced to the demotion to the position of mayor of Chao-zhou City. His reputation for directness caused a sensation throughout China. He had a great expectation for himself and regarded developing Confucianism as his responsibility. From the Wei and Jin dynasties through the Tang dynasty, Buddhism and Taoism were popular. Yu Han rejected them without regard for his own life. In the early tang dynasty, writers loved to write essays in poetry form. Han advocated that an essay must have a virtuous theme and tried to revolutionize literature by reverting to an ancient style. He also advocated for replacing the contemporary essays written in poetry form with prose. Han's views on literature greatly affect the literature of his contemporaries and that of later generations. Anthologists of later generations collected the essays of Yu Han, Zong-yuan Liu, Xiu Ou-yang, Gong Zeng, An-shi Wang, Xun Su, Shi Su, and Che Su as exemplary essays for literature students, and called the above eight essayists the Eight Masters of Literature During the Tang and Song dynasties. Yu Han was ranked first.

2 Before there was paper, books were written on large bamboo or wooden pieces. Thus, the Chinese character translated as "text" literally means "a large piece of wood". The texts included poetry, history and the six arts: etiquette, music, archery, horsemanship, writing, and mathematics. Consequently, "teaching texts" means “imparting education to pupils”.

3 Tan-zi was the King of the State of Tan during the Spring-fall Period. Zuo's Extended Version of Spring-fall says, "In the seventh year during King Zhao's reign, Tan-zi came to the State of Lu to pay homage to King Zhao. King Zhao asked Tan-zi, 'Why did King Shao-hao use birds' names to name government positions?’ Tan-zi replied, 'King Shao-hao is my ancestor. I know his reason. ' After Confucius heard this, he went to see Tan-zi and studied this subject with him."

4 Chang-hong was an official in Emperor Jing's court during the Zhou dynasty.

5 Shi-xiang was a court musician of the State of Lu. The chapter titled "The Old and Honorable Family of Confucius" in Chinese History says, "Confucius studied the drum and lute with Shi-xiang."

6 Lao-dan was Lao-zi. His first name was Er and his last name was Li. Bo-yang was his other first name. Dan was his posthumous name given by the emperor. The chapter titled "Visiting the capital of the Zhou Empire" in The Family Conversation of Confucius says, "Confucius told Jing-shu Nan-gong, 'I have heard that Lao-dan knows well both the ancient and the present, is versed in the origins of rites and music, and fully understands the principle of ethics. I would like to be his student. Now I am going to visit him.' They both went to Zhou, studied rites with Lao-dan, and studied music with Chang-hong."

7 Xi Zhu (1130 A.D.-1200 A.D.) interprets this statement as follows: One of the three walking together is I. One of the other two is virtuous and the other is evil. I learn virtue from the first one and discard evil of the second. Consequently, both of them are my teachers.

8 Pan Li passed the Advanced Exam in 803 A.D.

9 "The bibles of the six arts" refers to The Book of Changes, The Book of Records, The Bible of Poetry, The Book of Rites, The Bible of Music, and Spring-fall (a book on Chinese history written by Confucius). "Their commentaries" refers to Zuo's, Gong-yang's, Gu-liang's extended versions of Spring-fall.